This month in the series we are discussing foal care. You made it past those nerve wracking first few hours. Baby is sleeping with a full belly; mom looks good and comfortable and you feel exhausted but overjoyed.
How do you raise a healthy, well performing horse from the foal curled up in the shavings in front of you?
The time between birth and weaning has a lot of activity and is my favorite. I could spend hours watching mother and foal interact and if you have more than one it is downright entertaining to watch them explore the new world together.
In the beginning they only need a few things to flourish and if mom is getting what she needs, she will provide most of that. The three things that will create the best environment for good development are:
A newborn will nurse 3-7 times per hour and get everything it needs nutritionally from mom in the beginning. You will see him nibbling at mom’s feed or hay, however that is just curiosity teaching valuable skills he will need in the months ahead. Around 2 ½ to 3 months a mare’s milk supply spikes and then begins to decrease while her foal’s nutritional needs begin to increase. At this time, nursing will no longer be enough for him and you will want to offer additional feed and hay for your rapidly changing foal.
Proper nutrition at this point is critical for growth and development. Introducing a creep feed at about ½ pound per 100 pounds once or twice a day will help. Never more than ½ pound at a time because of the size of the foal’s stomach. Pick a feed designed for nursing foals that contains about 14 to 16% crude protein. Specific nutrients to look for in a creep feed are balanced levels of vitamins and minerals especially calcium, phosphorus, copper, zinc, vitamin E, selenium, and amino acids (lysine) for growth. Water is always the most important nutrient since we cannot live without it. Make sure they always have a good clean supply.
When the time comes, they make creep feeder bowls that have bars across the top, or add feed in with mom’s, if she’ll give him opportunity to eat it. Some barns add creep feeding sections into the stalls or paddocks that only foals can get into. Keep feed bins or bowls cleaned and maintained daily to prevent mildew, or bacteria from growing. Watch your foal's body score. You may have to increase or decrease feed based on what their body is telling you. Their metabolism and energy levels differ requiring different types or amount of food, to maintain proper body score for each animal.
You do not want to put a foal in a rigorous exercise program, the list of reasons why is as long as this post, but exercise is important and needed for development. Give them plenty of time to run and play and allow them to exercise at their own pace. Placing them in a small herd with other mares and foals will encourage and increase their exercise level just like putting a child in a group of kids, and they all take off running and playing together.
Turning out has shown to reduce respiratory infections, improve musculoskeletal systems, and prepare the foal's body for the training program they will begin in the future. Turning out for a minimum of 12 hours per day has shown increased bone mineral and larger cannon bone circumference growth then foals who are stalled or turned out less. Veterinarians and scientist recommend that you start with a few hours of turn out over the first couple of days and gradually increase time, reaching a goal of stalling for no more than 10 hours per day.
You may think that a foal between birth and six months isn’t going to need training and yes, we did just mention how important it is not to put them into a demanding training program at a young age.
So why are we talking training? Because of these two statements:
The human handling a foal receives during the beginning months and early years will affect how they respond to human handling from that moment on.
Horses have the ability to learn from the moment their hooves hit the ground. What takes humans months and years, a foal learns in minutes or it becomes prey. How to walk, how to eat, and how to communicate with the herd.
It's ok, read it again and let it sink in.
While you are not preparing them for a specific discipline at this age, you are setting the standard for how they will behave for you, a client, or a future owner for the rest of their life. Honestly speaking, these first two years before discipline specific training begins are some of the most important training years they will have. Forming a foundation for more complex and intense training to be built on.
Take time to pick up their feet for a few seconds at a time, put a foal halter on and teach them to walk beside you. Simple things like walking them for turn out. They think it’s just a chance to go somewhere, but you know you're using that time to set standards you will expect of them when they aren’t so darn cute in the future.
We hope you are enjoying this series. Don’t forget to switch over to our other article on “Development in Foals and Young Horses”. Catch the final article in next month’s newsletter, “Weaning: Nutrition and Feed Choices”.